Europa League play-offs
Euro vision focuses minds on making group stages
Celtic boss Brendan Rodgers is looking for an improved performance from his team against Suduva (pic: SNS Group)
In a week which sees the most anticipated Old Firm derby for years, both Rangers and Celtic have the small matter of Europa League qualification to focus on first.
Given the hype which will surround Steven Gerrard going head-to-head with Brendan Rodgers on Sunday, both parties will no doubt benefit from channeling their energies into the second leg of the play-offs.
On paper, Celtic would appear to have the easier task, a 1-1 draw in Lithuania last week setting them up nicely for the return clash in Glasgow.
Rangers, too, will be confident of progressing to the group stages after defeating Ufa 1-0 at Ibrox, though with the Russians remaining something of an unknown quantity on their first foray into European football, the Light Blues will be taking nothing for granted.
Rodgers’ preparations have once again been done amid a backdrop of yet more transfer speculation.
Prior to facing AEK Athens in the third qualifying round of the Champions League, all the chat was about John McGinn and the club’s failure to lure him away from Hibs amid interest from down south.
Knocked out by the Greeks over two legs, Celtic now need to live up to their favourites’ tag against Suduva amid talk of star striker Moussa Dembele moving to France and Porto lining up a bid for Olivier Ntcham.
Lyon are preparing a £20m. deal to tempt Peter Lawwell to pocket a hefty profit by offloading the striker bought from Fulham in 2016 for £500,000.
Dembele, who has scored 51 goals in 104 games, missed his team’s last training session ahead of the second leg having been locked in talks with the club over his future.
It’s hardly been the ideal situation before such a crucial tie and Rodgers will be looking for a much-improved display from the first leg.
“I wasn’t overly pleased with the performance but we came together as a squad and spoke about our direction going forward and it’s a time that can be very unstable for players,” he said.
“My job is to stabilise the emotions of the team and make sure we are focused on the football.
“We have big games and that’s my focus – preparing the team to get a result and have European football through until Christmas. Then come in and prepare for the Rangers game.”
Across the city, Gerrard has barely put a foot wrong during Rangers’ European campaign and he’ll be urging his players to make the most of the opportunity which is now in front of them.
It’s been a remarkable transformation under the former Liverpool star, with the team yet to taste defeat in a competitive game under the new manager.
Indeed, the run to the play-offs has seen the Gers shut out all opposition away from Ibrox.
The confidence that brings should see them get past their Russian hosts, with Gerrard saying: “We played against this team less than a week ago and beat them at home.
“We kept a clean sheet and we felt our performance deserved a bigger advantage, although it wasn’t to be. We treat this game in isolation but we come here with belief and confidence. The lads believe they can get the job done.
“We have a responsibility to try to bring European football back. The journey we have been on, stretching all the way back to pre-season, has been about this moment.”